When Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced off with his primary opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, in a heated televised debate in 2008, the unyielding leader conceded at least one point. When Mousavi criticized the state for its arbitrary book censorship under Ahmadinejad, the president responded, “Yes, I agree with you on that. I have written to the culture minister and warned him about this.”
Simply put, the eight years of Ahmadinejad's presidency were some of the toughest for Iran’s publishing community. Facing a massive increase in censorship and harassment, many writers simply gave up trying. In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani came to power, promising to inject new life into the country’s cultural scene. He seems to have made good on at least one of his promises, and many writers and publishers have told Al-Monitor that book censorship has eased considerably.
Speaking last week at an annual book award ceremony in Tehran, Rouhani criticized the arbitrary censorship of books and said he prefers to transfer the task of book supervision to the publishing industry itself.
It is hard to overstate how beleaguered Iran's writers and publishers felt during the eight years under Ahmadinejad. The Islamic Republic has never been a bastion of freedom of expression, but during that time, things were taken to a different level.
Under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), especially his first term, the vast majority of restrictions on book publishing were lifted. The complicated power structure in Iran meant that writers could still face persecution, but Khatami’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance actually stood by their side in most cases.
“We’d go to the courts and defend the books that had been published,” Khatami’s Deputy Culture Minister Ali Asghar Ramezanpoor told Al-Monitor.
After years of censorship, leftists could finally buy works by Marx and Lenin while reinvigorated journalists wrote books criticizing the highest figures in the establishment. All this came to a rather abrupt end when Ahmadinejad took power. His hard-line Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Safar-Harandi immediately annulled many of the permissions issued by his predecessor.
“This huge wall was raised and we felt like we had zero chances to publish any book,” Anita Yarmohammadi, one of Iran’s up-and-coming young novelists, told Al-Monitor.
Ramezanpoor, who headed the ministry’s powerful culture department, remembers the first weeks of the Ahmadinejad administration very well. He was repeatedly called to court to answer for the books he had allowed to be published. These were not only controversial titles like “Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Islam” by Moroccan Fatema Mernissi or journalist Akbar Ganji’s “The Red Eminence and the Grey Eminences.” Ramezanpoor also remembers being questioned, bizarrely, over a book about human biology. The new censors were uncomfortable with how words like “guardian” or “leadership” had been employed to describe blood cells, as the words are also used to describe the position of Iran’s supreme leader.
The ministry’s culture department was to be headed by people like Parviz Mohsen, who said those who complained about censorship “were actually against the entire regime of the Islamic Republic,” or Bahman Dorri, who once headed the publishing department of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) and who had penned titles like “The Absolute Guardianship of the Jurist is a Pillar of the Religion.”
Veteran publishers, such as feminist Shahla Lahiji, described that era as being worse than the war-torn 1980s.
The works of foreign writers such as William Faulkner, Federico Garcia Lorca and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were banned, despite having been best-selling favorites for years. Classics of modern Persian literature, from Sadeq Hedayat to Forough Farokhzad, also faced difficulties. Bizarrely, even the works of Khawja Abdullah Ansari, a Persian Sufi of the 11th century Herat, faced restrictions.
Less than two years into the Rouhani administration, things are very different. New Culture Minister Ali Jannati, while not necessarily known as a Reformist, has a distinction of being “quite open-minded,” as Ramezanpoor has complimented him. It helps that his father is one of the staunchest hard-line figures of the establishment, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati.
For actions such as openly speaking out against Internet censorship, Jannati has now become a favorite target of the hard-liners. His father has repeatedly said that he disapproves of his son, and he is touted as the next in line of ministers that the conservative-dominated parliament threatens to impeach. But while Internet and press censorship makes a lot of headlines, the easing of censorship over books has happened quietly and without much controversy.
“People in all echelons and levels of the ministry have changed,” Ramezanpoor said. “Ahmadinejad had appointed people with backgrounds in the IRGC, military or judiciary. Now, once more, we have literary-minded people working in the ministry.”
ُThis progress is in line with what Jannati promised at the outset. Criticizing the previous administration, he said, “People without the necessary knowledge used to stop some books from publication with their empty excuses," joking, "If the Quran hadn’t come from God, they would even ban that.”
New Deputy Culture Minister Abbas Salehi promised an answer to all applications for publication permits within 30 days and an end to arbitrary bans. Reports show that so far, he has mostly made good on the promise.
“It’s like a miracle,” said Yarmohammadi. “My new novel got a response in less than a month. And they only wanted a few changes.”
Nikoo Khakpoor, a novelist living in London and Tehran, told Al-Monitor, “One of the great things is that they let us talk to the reviewers once more to see what their concerns are. The wall has been lifted.”
Eminent literary figure and translator Arsalan Fasihi told Al-Monitor, “Things have become a lot better.” Many of his translations of Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish nobel laureate, are now coming out after having been barred from publication for close to a decade. He said that Pamuk is to visit Iran this month for the launch of the Persian translation of his first book, “Cevdey Bey and His Sons.”
As always, optimism must be tempered with caution. Tahmine Milani, a well-known director, was recently summoned to court to answer for a book that has been published legally — a well-known tactic of the Ahmadinejad years that the new administration has promised to stop.
The latest work by Iran’s premier novelist, Mahmood Dowlatabadi, has not received a permit, despite having already been published and celebrated in English and German.
Ramezanpoor said that the hard-liners could start targeting this renewed freedom. He’s not terribly hopeful for the long term.
But many prefer to be hopeful for now. “It is like this big dam has been removed and the river is flowing once more,” Yarmohammadi muses. “I see the coming days full of energy and life.”